IDENTITY FORMATION THROUGH THE LUKAN CANTICLES: Nativity Songs in the Heritage of Hebrew Inset Psalms


Artistic Theologian 10 (2023): 7-23

Jordan Covarelli is a Ph.D. student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary studying
church music and worship. His research fields include contemporary worship, aesthetics, theology and the arts, early Christianity, and Lukan studies.


Luke has long been regarded as the artist of the New Testament. 2 Many scholars in the last century have written about the masterful literary craftsmanship in his two-volume work of Luke Acts; however, few have written about the songs of praise he includes in the beginning of his Gospel. This is despite the fact that congregations around the world have read these narratives and sung these canticles throughout the last two millennia. Christian scholars and pastors have recently begun to ask why Luke preserved these stories the way he did, thereby recovering the theological value of Scripture’s artistic forms. Among other efforts, biblical scholars like Robert Tannehill, Kindelee Pfremmer De Long, and I. Howard Marshall use narrative criticism to examine the aesthetic power and purpose that Scripture’s narrative artform plays in biblical authority and Christian formation.3 Scholars like Kevin Vanhoozer and Abraham Kuruvilla have continued the exploration of Scripture’s aesthetic power by drawing upon speech-act theory.4 In a different discipline, artistic theologians like Jeremy Begbie and David Taylor have begun examining the proper function and use of liturgical arts in contemporary worship.5 Bridging these two disciplines, I seek to inspect the aesthetic power of the Lukan canticles for worship and formation in its early church context.6 By drawing on research into the aesthetic power of Old Testament songs, narrative criticism of Luke-Acts, the theological richness of the canticles, and a performance-critical approach to song, I will argue that Luke used the aesthetic powers of poetry and song for audience formation and discipleship.

First, I will summarize recent and seminal scholarship on Hebrew psalmody and position the songs in Luke’s Gospel within that tradition. Second, I will establish these songs as overtures that forecast Luke’s themes in his two-volume epic.7 Third, using biblical performance criticism, I will argue that Luke embeds songs in his Gospel to provide didactic instruction and identity formation in a way that only song can. Although this essay focuses on the literary craftsmanship of Luke, the human writer, this in no way should be understood to dismiss the divine authorship and authority of Scripture. This study seeks to understand what creative elements Luke used as he composed this Spirit-inspired work.


Luke’s songs follow in the footsteps of the great psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures. Robert Tannehill has outlined well that the canticles are modeled after OT poetry as found in the LXX.8 Robert Lowth, James Kugel, Tremper Longman III, Robert Alter, and Matthew Gordley all characterize Hebrew poetry more by its parallelism than any other feature.9 This parallelism found in OT poetry abounds in Luke’s songs. Furthermore, they resonate with allusions to various OT narratives, which, to use a phrase from N. T. Wright, allows “Israel’s Scriptures to resonate in the background.10


Tremper Longman III identifies three main features of Hebrew poetry: terseness, parallelism, and imagery.11 The greatest of these is parallelism. Robert Lowth, the first modern scholar to codify parallelism in Hebrew poetry, defined it as “the correspondence of one verse or line with another.”12 Kugel famously gave the formula for parallelism, later championed by Longman and Alter: “A, what’s more, B.”13 What line A states, line B expands, contrasts, or intensifies, bringing richer meaning to what line A first announced. While various scholars have identified numerous types of parallelism in Hebrew poetry, parallelism most commonly appears in one of three forms: synonymous parallelism, antithetical parallelism, and synthetic parallelism.14 Luke’s songs also contain another form of parallelism common to Hebrew poetry: chiastic parallelism. Longman states that the psalms were written and organized to allow for future readers and singers to use them in their own situation, such that “the reader becomes the ‘I’ of the psalm.”15 By stating this, he differentiates between the origins of a psalm and its primary use in Israel’s corporate worship. Robert Alter confirms this when he asserts that the final version of the Psalter “was meant to address the needs and concerns of the group.”16 The psalms served and continue to serve corporate worship foremost and individual worship secondarily.17 While Douglas Jones asserts that, “for their period, the Lukan psalms are unique,”18 they still embody many features of the OT psalms and came from the active psalm-composing intertestamental period.19



While biblical scholars often connect Mary’s song, the Magnificat, to Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2,20 Gordley identifies in Mary’s song—and Zechariah’s song, the Benedictus—allusions to Isaiah 12 and Psalm 97.21 Additionally, Joseph Fitzmyer finds in the Magnificat allusions to Psalms 33, 47, 48, 113, 117, 135, and “especially 136.”22 Furthermore, every line of Mary’s song echoes with OT allusions and parallelism. As but one example, the central cola, “He has shown strength with his arm” (Lk. 1:51a, ESV), sits alongside a host of Scriptures imaging YHWH’s strength as his arm (for example, Ex 6:6, 15:16; Deut 4:34, 7:19, 26:8, 33:27; Pss 89:10, 98:1; and Isa 40:10).

Following this OT imagery, Mary’s song displays a masterful use of Hebrew parallelism. The climax of the poem and its parallelism rests in Luke 1:52–53:

he has brought down the mighty from their thrones A E (v/o)
and exalted those of humble estate; A’ L (v/o)
he has filled the hungry with good things, B L (o/v)
and the rich he has sent away empty. B’ E (o/v)23

Each pair of lines serves as an example of antithetical parallelism (A and A’, B and B’). Likewise, each pair of lines also contrasts God’s actions towards the exalted of society (E) against the lowly people (L). However, the second pair reverses the order, creating a chiastic four-line structure. Intensifying the four-line chiasm, the song also reverses the verb/object order of the last two lines, forming a chiasm not just of people groups (E, L, L, E) but also of sentence order (v/o, v/o, o/v, o/v).24 The parallelism serves as a crescendo and climax of the song, fittingly emphasizing the text’s main point. This climactic section serves as a keystone demonstration of a song that displays a mastery of Hebrew poetry in LXX Greek.


Zechariah’s song resumes Mary’s theme of God’s care for his people, including a reference to God’s commitment that he promised to Abraham and Israel’s fathers (Lk. 1:55, 72–73). Zechariah opens his prophetic song with a line from the Psalter’s doxologies found at the end of Books 1, 2, and 4: “Bless the Lord God of Israel” (Lk. 1:68, Pss 41:13, 72:18, 106:48).25 This flows into a parallelism between God redeeming his people and God raising up a horn of salvation (vv. 68–69).

The song’s second section shifts from the corporate people of Israel to Zechariah’s son. The second section’s opening lines harken to Isaiah 40:3 (“a voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’”) as Zechariah declares that his child “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (Lk. 1:76). The next verse features a strong example of synonymous parallelism, pairing “knowledge of salvation” with “forgiveness of their sin” (v. 77). Next comes a frenzy of parallelisms. In verse 78, the theme of God’s mercy returns from verse 72, tying the two sections together. Then, “the sunrise . . . from on high” (v. 78) synonymously parallels “to give light to those who sin in darkness” (v. 79), the back half of which synonymously parallels the next words “and in the shadow of death.” The sunrise that served “to give light” also serves “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (v. 79), creating a chiastic parallelism with the two functions of the sunrise bookending depictions of sin’s darkness and death’s shadow. Zechariah’s concluding mention of peace introduces one theme in the next song.


Anyone familiar with the story of Christ’s birth likely knows the story of an angel appearing to shepherds in the field to announce, like a regal herald, the newborn arrival of the earthly Messiah and heavenly king. To climax this declaration, a heavenly host joins the angel to sing: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14). While this song is far shorter than even the shortest psalm, it does mirror many short choruses found throughout the Old Testament.26 This heavenly praise chorus recalls Old Testament antecedents like the Song of Miriam (Exod 15:21), the Song of Wells (Num 21:17–18), the Victory Ballad after Israel defeated King Sihon of the Amorites (Num 21:27–30), the women’s song praising David (“Saul has struck down his thousand, and David his ten thousands,” 1 Sam 18:7, 21:12, 29:5), the Temple Dedication Chorus (2 Chr 5:13, 7:3, 6), and Ezra’s Temple Foundation Chorus (Ezra 3:11). Giles and Doan identify each as OT short choruses.

In addition to mirroring an OT song genre, the Angels’ song also echoes many OT passages. Foremost, Luke’s heavenly host recalls Isaiah 6:3, mirrored in Psalm 72:19, depicting angels before God’s throne declaring of God, “the whole earth is full of His glory.” Similarly, Psalm 19:1 cries, “the heavens declare the glory of God.” Luke brings this verse to life as the heavenly host literally declares, “Glory to God” from the heavens. Luke’s ascription to glory “in the highest” reflects Psalm 8:1 testimony, “You have set your glory above the heavens.” Psalm 24:8 proclaims God the “King of glory” who is “mighty in battle.” God’s battle brings peace to the land. And so, just as the Angels’ song ends with peace, Luke’s final song begins with it.


Simeon, an elderly, “righteous and devout” man (Lk. 2:25), had waited patiently to see the Christ, as the Holy Spirit had promised him. Upon the Spirit leading him to the temple to find the Christ child, Simeon “blessed God” with a sung prayer that finishes in Hebraic parallelism. Stephen Farris describes the song’s structure as such: “it consists of three bicola or couplets, the last of which contains synonymous parallelism.”27 Simeon’s song harkens to an aspect of Hebrew poetry that neither Mary’s song nor Zechariah’s song does: it addresses God directly rather than singing about God.

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The hymn follows the format of a Hebrew psalm of praise. It opens with a declaration of praise to God, gives a reason for praise, and then expounds on the reason for praise, testifying to God’s goodness.28 Psalm 30:1–3 and 98:1–3 have parallel formats of extolling God, giving a brief statement of the reason for praise, and then expanding on why God deserves to be praised. Significantly, Psalm 98, like Simeon’s song, highlights God’s salvation being extended to the nations/Gentiles (Ps 98:2, Lk. 2:32). Simeon’s declaration of salvation for the Gentiles also resonates with Isaiah 40–52, 56, and 65:18–23, which crescendos with the pronouncement: “all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord” (65:23).


Just as Luke’s songs draw from the poetic styles of the Old Testament, they also look forward to the major themes of Luke-Acts. Tannehill argues that the Nativity narratives “are parts of a unitary story” and “are related to a unifying purpose, the purpose of God,” which Luke mentions throughout his two-volume work.29 This argument for the significance of the Nativity narrative applies also to the Nativity songs. In a feat of both literary genius and divine inspiration, the main themes of each song reappear as key themes throughout Luke’s epic.


Tom Wright calls Mary’s song the “gospel before the gospel.”30 It sings of God’s justice and mercy, introducing Luke’s particular emphasis regarding the effects of the kingdom of heaven and the gospel: the empowerment of women, care for the poor, and the liberating of the oppressed.31 Luke features women in his Gospel more than any other gospel writer, including setting this “gospel before the gospel” on a woman’s lips. Mary sings that God “has exalted those of humble estate” and “filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk. 1:52–53). The oppressed find liberation as God shows “strength with his arm,” scattering the proud, and bringing “down the mighty from their thrones” (vv. 51–52a). One can summarize these themes in one word: justice. The arrival of the kingdom that the Christ inaugurates means the inversion of the power structures of this evil world.

The themes in Mary’s song predict Jesus’s inaugural ministry address in Luke’s Gospel, his reading from Isaiah 61 (Lk. 4:17–21)—which Luke alone records. Among the gospel writers, only Luke includes several parables depicting the inversion of power structures and reversal of fortunes for the oppressed: the Rich Fool (12:13–21), the Shrewd Manager (16:1–9), the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19–21), and the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge (18:1–18). Additionally, only Luke tells the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet in a way that champions the woman, as he emphasizes her forgiveness and her worship (7:36–50). Likewise, Luke alone names three women—and mentions the presence of more—that join Jesus and the Twelve as they minister throughout Galilee (8:1–3). And only Luke mentions that women receive a special blessing from Jesus on his death march to Calvary (23:27–31).


Casimir Stroik surmises that “the Benedictus sounds salvation as a clarion note by describing the events that have begun with John and Jesus as another Exodus event.”32 Following Zechariah’s redemption theme, Luke provides various exodus motifs throughout Luke-Acts. The exodus theme resonates on the Mount of Transfiguration as Moses appears next to the glorified Jesus (Lk. 9:30). Jesus not only meets with Moses, but Luke presents him as a better Moses. Moses ascended Sinai accompanied by only Joshua (Ex 24:13), hears God within a cloud of glory atop the mountain (19:18), and returns with a radiant face (34:10). Jesus ascends a mountain with only a select few disciples (Lk. 9:28), gains a radiant appearance (v. 29), and enters a cloud of glory in which he and the disciples hear the voice of God (vv. 34–35). God corrects Peter’s fascination with all three radiant men that he sees, telling the disciples that Jesus alone is his son and to listen to him. In Acts 7, Stephen features the exodus narrative in his defense before the Jewish Council, mentioning the Israelites’ rejection of Moses as an allusion to the Jews’ rejection of Jesus (Acts 7:20–44). Finally, exodus overtones present themselves with each of Peter and Paul’s escape pericopes (Acts 5:17–25, 9:23–27, 12:1–19, 16:24 34), each of which allows the gospel to continue to go forth.


The song of peace that goes forth from the angels’ lips in Luke 2 returns on the lips of the people of Jerusalem in Luke 19 at Jesus’s triumphal entry as they offer peace back to heaven: “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (v. 38). Peace and glory stand together as central to Luke’s Christology throughout his epic.

Eight days before Jesus’s ascent to the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus foretells of his return “in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (9:26). In his account of the Mount of Transfiguration (9:28–36), Luke depicts Jesus transforming into a glorious array alongside “Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory.”

Luke contrasts Peter’s bewilderment (as depicted by his proposal to build three tents) and fear as they entered the cloud of glory with the same peaceful silence with which they left the mountain after seeing these things and hearing the Father’s instructions (vv. 35–36).

Again, Stephen begins his defense in Acts 7 by calling God “the God of glory” and ends with a vision of heaven, in which he sees “the God of glory, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (v. 56). Then, Stephen’s death depicts God’s peace given to those that please him. Juxtaposed against the mob’s cries of rage as they stone Stephen to death (v. 57), Stephen only cries out for God to forgive them, after which he “fell asleep” in death (v. 60).

Luke’s account of Saul’s conversion and ministry begins with glory and peace. His Damascus road experience in Acts 9 includes seeing a glorious light from heaven (v. 3). After Paul’s ministry in Judea and then journeying to Tarsus, Luke claims “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace” (v. 31).

Luke’s first account of the Gentiles hearing the gospel also echoes of glory and peace. Luke begins with Peter seeing something descending from heaven and “being taken back up” (Acts 10:11–16), much like the angels appeared to the shepherds and ascended again into the heavens. Cornelius also sees a man “in bright clothing” who tells him to send for Peter (v. 30). Finally, when Peter speaks to those in Cornelius’s house, he describes his message as the “good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (v. 36, emphasis added).

Luke returns to his motif of a heavenly visitation and peace on earth with his account of Paul’s shipwreck on the island of Malta. Luke records that, prior to the shipwreck, an angel appeared to Paul and brought good news (Acts 27:23) just as the heavenly host had done. After the shipwreck, Paul embodies “peace among those in whom [God] is pleased” as he shakes a viper off his hand with a peaceful defiance of death (28:3–6). This calm demeanor rose from his faith in God’s promise that Paul would preach the gospel in Rome, the capital of the civilized world.


With Simeon’s song, Luke foreshadows Peter and Paul’s ministry “to the Jew first and also to the Greeks” (Rom 1:16). He describes Jesus as God’s “salvation” and “light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to . . . Israel” (Lk. 2:30, 32). However, Luke’s emphasis on the good news being extended to all nations begins in the early chapters of his Gospel. When the synagogue in Nazareth rejects Jesus for enacting Isaiah 61, he rebukes them with two Old Testament stories of God caring for Gentiles rather than Israelites. He recalls Elijah ministering to no Israelite widow during a three-year famine, but only the Sidonian widow of Zarephath. Likewise, Elisha heals a single leper: Naaman the Syrian (Lk. 4:25–27). Unlike Matthew’s ending and Mark’s extended ending, Luke does not end his Gospel with the Great Commission. Instead, he wrote an entire second volume narrating the church’s early enactment of the Great Commission. Fittingly, Luke places the Great Commission not as the closing of his first volume, but as the opening scene of his second volume (Acts 1:7–8). The last line of the Great Commission, “the end of the earth” (v. 8), implies making disciples of the Gentiles. And one of the last verses of Acts declares: “the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles” (28:28).


Having situated Luke’s canticles firmly in both the hymnic legacy of Old Testament songs and their thematic significance in Luke’s epic two-volume work, I will now propose why Luke chose the artform of song to embed in the beginning of his narrative. Robert Karris asserts: “Luke’s artistry is a vehicle for his theology.”33 The songs function as more than just praise; they serve as didactic hymns, instructing the reader/singer. Additionally, these songs have identity-forming functions for Luke’s collective reader/singers.


While all songs inform or instruct in some way, Matthew Gordley identifies didactic hymns as those hymns of praise “whose primary purpose was to convey a lesson, idea, or theological truth to a human audience.”34 Finding didactic hymnody in ancient Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian writings, Gordley asserts:

Through their compositions these psalmists and poets expressed a particular view of the world, of their community’s place in it, and of the
larger purposes of the divine among them. They espoused a way of
seeing the world that was not always self-evident. In the simplest terms,
they took on the role of teachers as they taught through their hymns.35

In this way, Luke invites the reader through Mary’s song to interpret the events of both the Nativity prologue and the entire Gospel through the lens of Israel’s history of election and the promised divine visitation.36  The logical response to the dawn of the divine kingdom’s arrival could only be praise that magnifies the Lord.

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Luke follows Mary’s response of praise with Zechariah’s emphasis on worship—much to the delight of contemporary praise and worship theologians. As a priest, Zechariah embodies worship, offering incense when he first receives the message that he would have a son (Lk. 1:8–11). Zechariah also explicitly references worship in his song (vv. 68, 74). This worship emphasis teaches a key theme of Luke-Acts. Gordley asserts that it “reveals Luke’s view of the church as a worshipping community.”37 Luke displays this worshiping ecclesiology immediately after Jesus’s ascension (Lk. 24:52–53) and throughout Acts (1:14, 2:42–47, 4:24–31, 5:41–42, 9:20–21, 12:12, 13:1–3, 14:1–3, 17:1–3, 20:7–12). Luke Timothy Johnson connects Zechariah’s worship to the exodus theme in Zechariah’s song: “Luke has thereby made the experience of Zechariah a miniature enactment of his own canticle: God’s mercy liberates the people to worship fearlessly.”38 In this song that is “haunted” by Israel’s past,39 Luke engages social memory to instruct his readers to see the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as a liberating act of the God of Israel.40

After Jesus’s birth, the Angels’ song expands the reader’s vision from viewing the incarnation in a historical context to a transcendental context. Heavenly beings testify as “witnesses to the birth of the Messiah and to its heavenly significance.”41 The song expands the worldview of the reader/singer to see heaven and earth connected in Christ.

With Simeon’s song, Luke returns the readers’ attention to Israel’s history, but this time to Isaiah’s messianic prophecies. Simeon’s song expands the Gospel’s historical context laid by Mary’s song. It causes the audience to remember the future work of salvation going to the Gentiles as prophesied by Isaiah. Mary and Simeon bookend Luke’s historical context for his Gospel. Mary’s song guides the reader/singer to see Jesus Christ in light of Israel’s salvation history, and Simeon’s song invites the reader/singer to see the salvation brought by Jesus going forth into the future for the Gentiles as well.42 These songs capture past, present, and future in a symphony of salvation.


In addition to the didactic purposes Luke’s songs serve, they also shape the group identity of the reader/singers. To demonstrate this, I will draw from the performance-critical research of Terry Giles and Jonathan Doan. Performance criticism originates from speech-act theory and examines how “repeatable and socially recognizable events use specific techniques to powerfully express social values and themes.”43 Luke’s songs are “chimeras” of written and oral word, to borrow a term from Matthias Hopf.44 Giles and Doan argue that song texts “live on the boundary between the oral and the written, between the performed and the literate” and therefore research that only examines the text itself does only half the job.45

Biblical inset psalms—or songs embedded in Scripture’s narratives— come from oral cultures. Until the advent of the printing press, people primarily did not read a text silently or individually. They gathered to hear a text read aloud. And the distinctions between speaking, chanting, and singing a text were far more blurred in antiquity than they are in the modern era. By examining these songs as the performances they were designed to be, researchers can step into the “shared imaginative space of performance where the performer/presenter and the spectator meet.”46 Giles and Doan give seven criteria for inset or “twice-used” songs in the Hebrew Bible:

1. Invariably predate the narratives to which they have been added;
2. Often identify an author or performer, making that persona present
to the reading or listening audience;
3. Add little or nothing to the plot development of the narratives in
which they now reside;
4. Often conflict with the details of the narrative context and at times
appear anachronistic in the narrative placement;
5. Emphasize audience formation through the projection of a
group identity;
6. Contribute to the narrative an influence and persuasiveness that goes
far beyond the mere recitation of the words of the song;
7. Were, at least on one occasion, performed by an identifiable group
known as the moshelim, or Ballad singers.47

The italicized criteria (numbers 2, 3, 5, and 6) apply to Luke’s songs as already evidenced in this essay. Luke identifies performers for each canticle. The canticles do not contribute to the Gospel’s plot, leading Robert Tannehill to helpfully compare them to opera arias.48 As didactic hymns, Luke’s songs emphasize an audience formation that expands the meaning
of the narrative far beyond the story and songs themselves.

Concerning the first criterion—the songs predating their narratives— John Drury argues that Luke “revives a favorite technique of Old Testament historical writing” of inserting pre existing songs into a narrative.49 Although Simeon’s song seems most dependent upon its narrative context for significance and origin, D. R. Jones gives a plausible way early Jesus followers could have used Simeon’s song prior to Luke composing his Gospel.50 Criterion 4—that the songs often conflict with the narrative—is not mandatory, as evidenced by the word “often.” Additionally, Luke’s well-established literary artistry could easily account for the harmony between song and narrative. Finally, the fact that the church adopted all of these canticles as songs for corporate worship at least as early as the fourth century may serve as an equivalency for criterion 7.

As twice-used songs, the canticles give to the narrative something quite important, because, as Kevin Vanhoozer attests, “praises may be spoken or sung but singing accomplishes something that saying cannot.”51 Terry and Giles demonstrate that twice-used songs “are quite powerful ‘moments frozen in time,’ pausing the narrative in order to pull the listener or reader into the story. The songs transform the audience and spectators from a group of individuals into a community—a ‘we’ with a shared identity.”52 They argue that twice-used songs

reconstruct the past in such a way as to assist in forming a concrete social identity among the reading and listening audience . . . in which the values, language, and thoughts of all involved are as identical as possible, making multiple communication not only possible but effective as well. And this identity is not an accidental construct but an intentional project of the biblical storyteller. The storyteller wants to help shape the audience, to create values and priorities, to help spectators think of themselves in a specific fashion. The twice-used songs are not casually inserted into the narrative to simply entertain the reading or listening audience but are employed skillfully by the storyteller to do nothing less than help the audience reshape their own reality. Twice- used songs are powerful tools in accomplishing this goal.53

Based upon how strongly Luke’s songs satisfy Giles and Doan’s requirements for twice-used songs, I assert that Luke intentionally uses them to shape his listeners’ social identity and reality. In addition to Gordley’s claim that Luke uses the canticles to instruct his readers or listeners, Luke also seeks to help them craft their social values.54 Luke’s songs can both instruct the individual and shape the community because, as Vanhoozer observes, singing is both personal and social: it engages the individual’s entire being and unites an entire assembly.55

Luke aims to do more than just instruct and didactically shape Theophilus’s worldview. He aims to engage, construct, and reinforce a social identity in his audience that aligns with the values, thoughts, ideals, and beliefs embodied in his canticles and characters. Luke’s songs shape not just his audience’s thoughts, but their behavior and even their being. Luke seeks more than changed minds. He seeks to change identities and change lives. Viewing the songs as the performances they are reveals that they “engage both the cognitive and the imaginative aspects of thought to conceive of reality not in proposition but in actions and being.”56 This is what Luke is doing with what he depicts singing. Readers and listeners of his Gospel come to identify with Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon, who sing of God’s mercy, salvation, and rescue in the context of Jesus’s birth. This changed identity then leads to actions similar to those of the apostles in the book of Acts. Luke wants his readers to do more than understand the work of God in its historical context. He wants his readers to embody the work of God in their own contexts. Performance criticism reveals that collectively known songs like Luke’s canticles can do just that.


Through the songs he includes in his Gospel, Luke masterfully edifies and disciples his readers. His songs sit as equals alongside the greatest psalms and hymns from the Hebrew Scriptures. Likewise, they forecast the unique themes of his upcoming two-volume epic: salvation to Jews and Gentiles, the glory of God bringing peace to his people, and God’s mercy bringing justice to the poor and oppressed. As the canticles both recall God’s past works and anticipate his promises, they serve as both didactic and identity-shaping works of art. The songs instruct their reader/singers to see the saving work of Jesus in the context of biblical salvation history past, their own personal present, and the promised eternal kingdom of eternity future. And as his songs are sung, they shape the identity, beliefs, and behavior of their audience, leading to disciples that do not just think rightly about Jesus, but live rightly unto him.



2. Primarily because of Luke’s exceptional literary artistry, the Orthodox church named him the patron saint of iconographers. For more information about this and other attributions to Luke’s literary artistry, see Rebecca Raynor, “The Shaping of an Icon: St Luke, the Artist,” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 39, no. 2 (2015): 161–72; Rebecca Raynor, “In the Image of Saint Luke: The Artist in Early Byzantium” (PhD thesis, University of Sussex, 2012); Robert J. Karris, Luke: Artist and Theologian: Luke’s Passion Account as Literature (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009); Nigel Turner, “The Quality of the Greek of Luke-Acts,” in Studies in New Testament Language and Text: Essays in Honour of George D. Kilpatrick on the Occasion of His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. J. K. Elliott (Leiden: Brill, 1976), 378; J. M. Creed, The Gospel according to St. Luke (London: Macmillan and Co., 1930), lxxvi.

3. Biblical narrative criticism examines Scripture as literature, seeking how the biblical author crafted their narratives to highlight key themes and patterns within the story of God at work in the world. I. Howard Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970); I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978); Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986); Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Updated ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999); Kindalee Pfremmer De Long, Surprised by God: Praise Responses in the Narrative of Luke-Acts (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009). For an overview of narrative criticism as a field, see James L. Resseguie, Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) and Mark Allan Powell, What Is Narrative Criticism? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).

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4. See, for instance, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005); Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014); Abraham Kuruvilla, “David v. Goliath (1 Samuel 17): What Is the Author Doing with What He Is Saying?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 58, no. 3 (September 2015): 487–506; Abraham Kuruvilla, “‘What Is the Author Doing with What He Is Saying?’ Pragmatics and Preaching—an Appeal!” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 60, no. 3 (September 2017): 557–80.

5. See, for instance, Jeremy S. Begbie, ed., Sounding the Depths: Theology through the Arts (London: SCM Press, 2002); Jeremy Begbie, “The Theological Potential of Music: A Response to Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin,” Christian Scholar’s Review 33, no. 1 (Fall 2003): 135–41; W. David O. Taylor, Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019).

6. I use the term “songs” more often than “canticles” throughout this paper to highlight their true artform. While “canticle” means “song,” it has taken on its own ethos, representing either only the scriptural texts themselves or later musical compositions used in the Latin offices or Anglican or other “high church” liturgies.

7. Here I compare the Lukan canticles to a modern musical overture where all the main themes of a ballet or Broadway musical get played before the curtain opens. This style of musical overture alerts the learned ear to the upcoming leitmotifs or musical themes of the entire show. Similarly, Luke’s songs alert the observant reader/listener to the upcoming themes and motifs throughout Luke-Acts.

8. Robert C. Tannehill, “The Magnificat as Poem,” Journal of Biblical Literature 93, no. 2 (1974): 266, 269.

9. Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, trans. G. Gregory, 4th ed. (London: Thomas Tegg & Co., 1839); James Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981; reprint, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); Tremper Longman III, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014); Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 2011); Matthew E. Gordley, New Testament Christological Hymns: Exploring Texts, Contexts, and Significance (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 64.

10. N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird, The New Testament in Its World: Audio Lectures, Audible Audio Book, vol. 2, Zondervan Biblical and Theological Lectures (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), pt. Luke-Acts, 19:04–21. For further evidence of this position, see John Drury, Tradition and Design in Luke’s Gospel: A Study in Early Christian Historiography (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1976), 50–58.

11. Longman III, Psalms, 55.

12. Lowth, Sacred Poetry, 204; Robert Lowth, Isaiah: A New Translation, with a Preliminary Dissertation and Notes, Critical, Philological and Explanatory, 11th ed. (London: Thomas Tegg & Son, 1835), viii; Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, eds., Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 752.

13. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, 1.

14. Lowth, Sacred Poetry, 205, 210–11; Longman III and Enns, eds., Dictionary of the Old Testament, 753. Synonymous parallelism shows consonance between the two lines. Antithetical parallelism is when the second line contrasts, but not contradicts, the first line. Synthetic parallelism is when the second line expands or intensifies what the first line states. Chiastic parallelism is a different kind of parallelism in which the word order of the second line reverses the word order of the first.

15. Longman III, Psalms, 61.

16. Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, 258.

17. Longman III, Psalms, 61.

18. Douglas Jones, “The Background and Character of the Lukan Psalms,” The Journal of Theological Studies 19, no. 1 (1968): 47.

19. Consider, for example, Hodayot, the Psalms of Solomon, and the Odes of Solomon. For more information, see Mika S. Pajunen and Jeremy Penner, eds., Functions of Psalms and Prayers in the Late Second Temple Period (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017); Larry R. Helyer, Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period: A Guide for New Testament Students (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002); Brad Embry, Archie T. Wright, and Ronald Herms, eds., Early Jewish Literature: An Anthology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

20. Because the common names for Luke’s canticles come from their Latin Vulgate translation, and I am dealing with Luke’s original Greek text, I will minimize the use of their Latin names and refer to each song by the person who sings it in the Gospel.

21. Matthew E. Gordley, Teaching through Song in Antiquity: Didactic Hymnody among Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Christians (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 309.

22. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, 1982), 359; Gordley, Teaching through Song in Antiquity, 310.

23. The ESV and most English Bible translations preserve the Greek’s object/verb order except for the third line, which in the Greek is: πεινώντας ενεπλησεν αγαθών and would literally translate to “the hungry he has filled with good things.”

24. For more of my research on Mary’s song, see Jordan Covarelli, “The Magnificat as the Overture of Luke’s Gospel: Luke’s Emphasis on Women, the Oppressed, and the Marginalized in God’s Plan of Salvation” (The King’s University, 2020),

25. Book 3’s doxology ends with a similar but abbreviated “Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen and Amen” (Ps 89:13), and Book 5’s doxology is weaker in anticipation of the five-psalm recapitulation of praise. Both the Book 5 doxology (Ps 145:21) and the final five psalms declare the Lord as God over all the world and not just Israel any longer, a theme that Zechariah’s song also features.

26. The label of “Short Chorus” is taken from a chapter by the same name in Terry Giles and William J. Doan, Twice Used Songs: Performance Criticism of the Songs of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 119–34.

27. Stephen Farris, The Hymns of Luke’s Infancy Narratives: Their Origin, Meaning and Significance (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1985), 144.

28. Farris, The Hymns of Luke’s Infancy Narratives, 145.

29. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, 1:21.

30. Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 14.

31. For an extensive analysis of these three themes throughout Luke’s Gospel, see Covarelli, “The Magnificat as the Overture of Luke’s Gospel,” 7–11, 14–16.

32. Casimir B. Stroik, “The Benedictus, Lucan Narrative, and Poetic Discourse” (PhD diss., -Catholic University of America, 2009), 240.

33. Karris, Luke: Artist and Theologian, 1.

34. Gordley, Teaching through Song in Antiquity, 5.

35. Gordley, Teaching through Song in Antiquity, 1.

36. Gordley, Teaching through Song in Antiquity, 311.

37. Gordley, Teaching through Song in Antiquity, 313.

38. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina, vol. 3 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 47.

39. I borrow this term “haunted” from Gordley, Teaching through Song in Antiquity, 218; additionally, early performance criticism is heavily influenced by Marvin Carlson’s work The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003). Like Gordley, here I use the term to creatively express a concept akin to intertextuality. The songs in Luke’s narrative conjure to mind the ghosts of ancient Hebrew poetry.

40. Gordley, Teaching through Song in Antiquity, 314.

41. Gordley, Teaching through Song in Antiquity, 315.

42. Gordley, Teaching through Song in Antiquity, 317–18.

43. Giles and Doan, Twice Used Songs, 13.

44. Matthias Hopf, “Being in between: Canticles as a ‘Chimera’ between Written and Oral Styles of Speech,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 42, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 11–27.

45. Giles and Doan, Twice Used Songs, 5.

46. Giles and Doan, Twice Used Songs, 13.

47. Giles and Doan, Twice Used Songs, 19, emphasis added.

48. Tannehill, “Magnificat as Poem,” 265.

49. Drury, Tradition and Design in Luke’s Gospel, 50–51. Scholars have suggested various origins for the Lukan Canticles. However, the consensus position holds that Luke includes pre-existing hymns given to him from his “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Lk. 1:2) that are in the style of traditional Hebrew psalms or LXX texts. One highly probable explanation of Luke’s sourcing is that the hymns came to him from sources that trace back to the very people that sang or experienced the songs (Mary, Zechariah, or Elizabeth, etc.). The traditional ascriptions of the songs fit perfectly within source-critical categories.

50. Jones suggests that Simeon’s song “reflects an early Christian response to the problem of the death of a believer” and would have “perfectly illustrated” Simeon’s story. For more on this, see “The Background and Character of the Lukan Psalms,” 47–48.

51. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Praising in Song: Beauty and the Arts,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 112.

52. Giles and Doan, Twice Used Songs, 21.

53. Giles and Doan, Twice Used Songs, 22, emphasis added.

54. If this is true, it has massive repercussions on the theories surrounding who Theophilus was. It lends evidence to the arguments that Luke intended his two volume work to be read by a collective and not just a single individual person named Theophilus. It also suggests that, if Luke aims to create an apologetic work, it is an apology meant to encourage disciples. In order for either Gordley’s or Giles and Doan’s theories to work, they require the songs to be experienced.

55. Vanhoozer, “Praising in Song,” 112.

56. Giles and Doan, Twice Used Songs, 13.